This post recounts the birth of my daughter Mara 16 years ago at the very tiny hospital where I am now privileged to care for the sick and the dying in Portland, Maine
I am on the couch with my baby girl. It is six in the morning. The light slanting in through the window is just beginning its journey into fullness. I have a cold and my body aches but I don’t care one bit. I have survived fifty-six hours of labor. I nurse my baby whenever she is hungry and we sleep together, her cheek pressed against my chest, her tiny body draped over my belly. We are still one.
I had tried to give birth at a free-standing birth center. It was a groovy place that smelled like herbs and freshly baked zucchini bread. It had a four-poster bed with a beautiful homemade quilt on it. I was going to do it drug-free, the way my mother had with my sisters and me. I felt sure it would go as planned. But it did not. There were twenty hours of mind-altering stabbing pains spent thrashing in the four-poster bed, then eighteen hours of pushing during which time I could feel the baby’s copious hair on the top of her head between my legs. The midwives were breathless and exhausted.
We tromped up the narrow stairs to the third-floor office. I squatted, many hands holding me up.
“She’s right there, just one more big push!” they said.
We all thought she was going to slip right out. I just needed to be in the right position, they said.
But she was jammed in there somehow and she just plain wasn’t coming out.
Finally, Drew announced that we were going to the hospital. I was too delirious to even think a thought of any kind, but once he said it out loud I realized what a terrific idea it was. I went into the bathroom, threw up and then staggered out to his waiting jeep. There was a dry biting wind outside the birth center–it was early March in Maine. Drew drove me the three blocks to Mercy Hospital. I walked right up to the counter at the emergency entrance while Drew parked the jeep. I had to waddle with my feet wide apart because, well, I had a baby’s head stuck in my vagina.
I tried to explain what had happened to the reception person. I think I appeared a lot more composed than I felt. What I kept thinking was this: after a long weekend in constant pain with no sleep, I now knew what it felt like to be in the Russian Gulag under Stalin. I thought I should have been broken, but somehow I wasn’t.
Someone put me into a wheelchair and it seemed like moments later I was in a hospital bed and they were giving me a drug to “take the edge off.” After the drug took effect I was completely blotto, like I had done five tequila shots in quick succession. I thought I was perched at the head of a wide queen-sized bed, not a narrow hospital stretcher, just chilling with friends at a party. It was pretty fun.
But the hours wore on and still she did not come. Pretty soon I could feel the pain as acutely as ever. I began to beg for the epidural. It started out as a polite request.
“Can I please have an epidural?” I asked.
But the obstetrician on call didn’t want to give me the epidural because the baby was so far into the birth canal. I couldn’t understand why this mattered and nothing she said would convince me that I shouldn’t have it.
Pretty soon I was begging: “Please, please, I can’t go on!” And, “I’m dying here, please somebody do something!”
I was like a teenager who wanted to go out with a strange boy and her parents had said no. I never let up. I used every argument in the book. I used gentle tears sliding down over my hot cheeks and I used great heaving sobs. I felt I couldn’t carry on without my personality splitting apart into one too many shards.
The one glimmer of light in that whole dark night was my nurse Rhonda. Drew had long ago lost his mind from lack of sleep and someone had led him gently by the hand to a couch somewhere and ordered him to rest. I remember Rhonda’s face clearly, smiling, framed with brown curls. She would appear out of the darkness like a beacon drenched in fog, and talk to me in hushed tones, giving me some comfort, and some hope that this would all turn out okay. Then she would recede back into the dark warmth of the quiet hospital.
Finally, the doctor agreed to give me a short-acting epidural. Within minutes a stunningly handsome anesthesiologist with a British accent appeared in the room. I didn’t even feel the needle going into my spine. Momentarily, the excruciating, mind-altering pain vanished. I was finally able to relax. My body stopped its clenching.
Someone went and found Drew and he wobbled back into the room. The doctor decided to try to get the baby out with what she called a “vacuum.” She attached a suction cup to the baby’s head and tried to basically suck her out. It didn’t work and we heard the sharp thwap of the suction cup as it snapped off of the baby’s scalp. She tried it again, but it was the same deal.
So she got out the salad tongs—the forceps. I could tell that the doctor’s anxiety and fear was building. She seemed to think she had to get this baby out or else. Or else what, I didn’t know. But I observed her fear like an outsider. I didn’t worry at all. I was just so happy the pain was gone.
Rhonda and Drew took up their positions on either side of me, each holding a thigh. The doctor got the forceps around the head but then she lost her grip and one slipped. It went clang, clang, clang across the floor. She shouted out sharply for a new one and someone had to go running. This time she attacked the situation with a fierce determination.
She pulled that baby right out.
The feeling of relief and joy that I had at that moment was absolutely indescribable.
It was ten minutes to seven in the morning when she finally arrived and it was still mostly dark out. There was just a tiny sliver of the pale light of winter appearing in the sky. It was the time between Asr and dawn in the Muslim daily prayer cycle, between the moment when the light of the sun begins to peek around the curve of our little globe just enough that we can see it and the time when the sun actually presents its hulking body at the horizon.
We were right across the street from the Episcopal Cathedral where I sing in the choir and its pea stone circular driveway, its frozen bishop’s garden. The air in the room was positively infused with magic.
My tiny baby was absolutely perfect. She had a full head of black hair and the beautiful delicate face of a china doll. In spite of her ordeal she was perfectly healthy with pink cheeks and a vigorous cry. Drew and I were positively astounded.
As I lie here on this couch, it is now two weeks since she was born and I am still astonished by her perfection and her beauty. She clings to me and I cling to her. She takes away all the pain of bringing her into this world and then some.